You can't see Christopher Ulrich, but he can see you. Scan the twilight streets of downtown Los Angeles and you won't spot him. He is at the one place you don't think to look: up. Peering down over the brim of his rooftop.
Downtown has become a hip place to live, no doubt about it. Loft prices have skyrocketed, and most Angelenos know at least one transplant who talks nonstop about the merits of this gritty frontier. Drop by the renaissance after work, however, and you'll be lucky to spot a dozen of the estimated 24,000 residents downtown.
"The streets are bustling with activity all day," says Ulrich, a 32-year-old artist who lives in a Santee Court apartment. "Then all of a sudden, around 5 or 6, everyone's gone."
For many downtowners, rooftops have become the new ground floor. When the streets are empty, "rooftops come alive," says Adam Martin, an events designer who lives in a penthouse in the historic core. "It's almost like 'Mary Poppins,' where you see the chimney sweeps on the roofs. All of the sudden you see Dick Van Dykes dancing across rooftops, all over downtown."
Residents say that sunny days and balmy evenings entice them upward, that even the most industrial-looking rooftop — crowded by pipes and air-conditioning modules, covered with asphalt — hosts sunbathing, stargazing, birthday parties and barbecues. Invitations are usually posted in elevators: party, tonight, come.
On "drive-in movie nights," Martin and neighbors watch films projected onto the elevator box protruding from their 4,000-square-foot rooftop. They organize casual concerts. Members of the L.A. Philharmonic once drew a crowd of 100.
They've even staged a rooftop wedding for one of their own: Martin decorated his penthouse with dozens of candles and set out food stations, seating and heat lamps on the rooftop beyond. Neighbors served as bridesmaids and ushers. Financial district skyscrapers glowed in the background.
Developers have been quick to capitalize on the skyward trend, and many of downtown's newly renovated buildings boast a surprising variety of amenities. When Santee Court resident Ulrich needs a breather after painting late into the night, he often grabs a basketball and shoots some hoops on the rooftop court. A bridge leads to another part of the complex, a rooftop with a modest putting green, barbecue area and binoculars that spy the cityscape below. The pool and spa are on yet another rooftop. Still to come: an exercise area, running track and citrus grove.
"This is new for L.A.," says Brad Gwinn, vice president of MJW Investments, which developed the Santee apartment-condo project. "But it's also classic in that this is what people in L.A. are used to: eating outdoors, hanging out with friends."
Though rooftops are most often associated with New York, Gwinn did his research by scouring Portland, Denver and Dallas. Gwinn's latest renovation is Boyle Heights' historic Sears building, which has a rooftop that spans nearly four acres. "Dream away," he says. "We'd like to use all of it."
Residents of downtown's Toy Factory Lofts choose between barbecuing on a rooftop garden filled with colorful flora and soft grass, or luxuriating poolside on the uppermost rooftop. On cool evenings, residents warm themselves around a gas fireplace by the pool and take in the panoramic view.
Designers and developers say that the tops of downtown buildings are becoming as malleable as their interiors.
"Now that people have seen a few of these rooftops, there's a tremendous amount of support for imaginative processes like these, for the kinds of things which might originally have been delegated to the Frank Gehrys of the world," says Mia Lehrer, a landscape architect who crafted the rooftops for Santee Court and the Pegasus building.
Successful designs "don't pretend that this is something other than a roof," says developer Gwinn. Pipes and other industrial-looking oddities snake unapologetically among even the fanciest amenities. "They remind you that you're not in a resort, that this is a special 'found place,' that it's something that you've stumbled upon."
Long a prime illustration of a stagnated city center, downtown L.A. "is now becoming an example to other cities which grew quickly and with such disregard for public spaces," Lehrer says. These rooftops "create community in the way that parks create community. A lot of young people here won't be able to have backyards. This is going to be their playground."
Not everybody is thrilled. These rooftops are "private heavens," says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of the urban planning department at UCLA. "What concerns me is the increasing tendency to take activities which were for hundreds of years part of the public realm, and privatize them. Then we'll have parks only being used by low-income and minority people, and affluent people will use private parks.
"This is not only a moral issue; it is also a practical one. The cost is the vibrancy of the city. The more we segregate cities, the more fear there is that we'll never become a community of citizens, that everybody will follow their own individualistic interests."
Landscape architect Ed Gripp sees the rooftop he's designing for the Pacific Electric Lofts — slated to include a pool, hot tub, fire pits, cabana areas, gardens, sundecks and a dog run — as "a way to escape." The lavish space was a major draw for Candice Pascal, 28, who will move downtown from Hollywood when Pacific Electric opens later this month.
"I am very reluctant to walk around here at night, and in some parts, even during the day," Pascal says. She plans on holding monthly rooftop gatherings.
Josh Gray-Emmers, who lives in the Spring Street Towers, grew up in Northridge and thought of downtown as "just some really nice backdrop that Warner Bros. or Paramount use as a set. I didn't know people actually live here." Then four years ago he ventured onto a rooftop party at the Towers, gazed out across the city from above, and felt "absolute awe."
Now the 27-year-old events planner organizes his own rooftop shindigs: 300 friends crowded onto 2,000 square feet last Halloween. It's a simple space — just Astroturf, tables and chairs, an herb garden, tomatoes in the summer. But, Gray-Emmers says, "It's ours. It's our rooftop community.
"You wouldn't believe how many times I've brought people up here who've spent their whole lives in big mansions in Beverly Hills. You bring them up to the rooftop when the sun's setting, and they're in love."
Downtown is one of the few places in L.A. where this kind of rooftop living is possible, says John Chase, urban designer for West Hollywood. Modernist architecture typical throughout L.A. is ideal for rooftop development, but in Santa Monica or West Hollywood such projects often encounter resistance, Chase says.
Residents worry about noise, neighbors worry about privacy. For the moment, at least, a good majority of Angelenos remain tucked inside their houses instead of frolicking on top of them.
As for downtown, there's no indication of downward motion. Residents and designers fantasize aloud about sky-high bridges that would make rooftops accessible to everyone. References to the Jetsons and the futuristic film "Blade Runner" often follow.
On Saturdays, Hal Bastian stokes the flames. The vice president of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District begins his bimonthly housing tours on the ground, but they inevitably drift upward.
On the rooftops, "mouths are agape," Bastian says. "Even the most dyed-in-the-wool suburbanites say, 'Oh, I can do this.' "
Times staff writer Steven Barrie-Anthony can be reached at steven.barrie-anthony@ latimes.com.